By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness
If you’re anything like me, going to the grocery store these days can make you cringe. Flour is up 37 percent, eggs have shot up 35 percent and milk now costs you 23 percent more. Even dried beans – the staple of budget cooking – have risen more than 21 percent.
It’s even worse if you buy pre-made convenience foods. Not only are they more expensive, you’re actually getting less real food for your money. What you are getting is a mouthful of unpronounceable – and possibly harmful – food additives.
What’s Really In Your Food?
A quick look at the ingredient lists on some foods and beverages might have you wishing you remembered more high-school chemistry. But, while most food additives sound menacing, not all are. Remember, natural compounds are also made up of chemicals. For instance, salt is sodium chloride and vitamin C is ascorbic acid.
There are more than 3,000 substances approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in foods for a variety of purposes, such as slowing spoilage, combating food contamination and enhancing taste, texture and appearance. Fortunately, most additives – when minimally used – pose no proven threat to health. Still, there are some additives that are of concern and it’s best to avoid them whenever possible. The trick is knowing which ones they are.
What, Me Worry?
Unless you grow your own and make everything from scratch, you’re going to get much, if not all, of your food from the supermarket. To keep the thousands of cans, bottles and boxes that line their shelves edible, some food additives are necessary. Here are some you don’t have to worry about:
Calcium/Sodium Propionate. Since the 1930s, these mold inhibitors have been used to preserve bread, baked goods and sometimes processed cheese. The calcium version is typically found in breads and rolls, while its sodium counterpart is used in cookies, cakes and pies.
Calcium/Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate. As dough conditioners, these additives make bread sturdier and easier to knead. As whipping agents, they increase the volume of whipped cream and help make dried and frozen egg whites fluffy.
Carrageenan. This gum, derived from red seaweed or algae, has also been in use since the 1930s. It acts as a food thickener, emulsifier (keeping the ingredients from separating) and fat replacer. A few years back, a report surfaced that carrageenan could cause ulcerations of the colon and possibly cancer. As it turned out, these negative findings were based on animal and lab studies that used a type of carrageenan not permitted in food.
Citric Acid. Derived from citrus fruits, this additive is one of the safest and most widely used. It imparts tartness and acts as a preservative and antioxidant, particularly in sodas and other carbonated drinks.
Gums. Used as stabilizers and thickening agents, these natural gums – arabic, guar, locust bean, tragacanth and xanthan – can be found in ice cream, frozen pudding, salad dressing, dough, cottage cheese, candy and drink mixes. Because these gums aren’t absorbed by the body, they are often used to replace the fat in low-fat ice cream and salad dressing.
Potassium Sorbate. A preservative/mold inhibitor found in foods and drinks like wine, cheese, yogurt and dried meat.
The Bad Boys
While the additives listed above won’t hurt you, the following chemicals should be avoided because they can have a negative impact on your health:
BHA/BHT. Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene act as preservatives and antioxidants. They help stop spoilage and prevent the fats and oils in foods from becoming rancid. However, controversy exists as to whether BHA and BHT promote cancer. Moreover, many experts believe they are unnecessary since safer substitutes like rosemary and raisin extracts are available.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG). This amino acid brings out the flavor in many foods. The problem is, this flavor boost allows companies to reduce the amount of high quality ingredients in their products. Clinical trials show that MSG can trigger headache, nausea, weakness and a burning sensation in the back of neck and forearms. Some people even complain of wheezing, changes in heart rate and difficulty breathing. But there’s an even darker side to this flavor enhancer. Studies in the 1960s showed that large amounts of MSG fed to infant mice destroyed nerve cells in the brain. And new data shows that MSG contributes to obesity and type 2 diabetes, and is a factor in inflammation.
Potassium Bromate. Because this dough conditioner has been linked to cancer in animal studies, it’s no longer used in most breads and rolls, although there are a few exceptions. Until the U.S. bans its use, as most other countries have, check the ingredient lists of breads and rolls and avoid those that use it.
Sodium/Potassium Benzoate. The trouble with these preservatives, often used in soft drinks and fruit drinks, is that they can form benzene – a known carcinogen – when combined with vitamin C. Many, but not all, manufacturers have reformulated their beverages to eliminate the risk.
Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite. These well-known additives do serve an important purpose – their presence helps prevent botulism in cured meats like hot dogs and lunch meat. Still, sodium nitrate converts to sodium nitrite once ingested – and sodium nitrite has been linked to cancer in lab animals. A new study, culled from the famous Nurses’ Health Study, shows that eating cured meat frequently can significantly increase the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in women who smoke.
Sulfites (Sulfur dioxide, sodium bisulfite). These preservatives are used in dried fruits, wine and processed potatoes to prevent discoloration and bacteria growth. But they also destroy vitamin B-1 and can cause severe reactions, especially in asthmatics. Of more concern, Austrian scientists recently discovered that sulfites suppress the immune system.
One Last Thing . . .
Unfortunately, it’s next to impossible to eat a totally additive-free diet, but as you can see, there are some you really should avoid. If you don’t want to dissect every food label, you can minimize your exposure by Steering clear of products with lengthy ingredient lists. Instead, rely heavily on fresh, whole foods. These foods are generally healthier, and not simply because they don’t contain a lot of additives. Real food – usually found along the perimeter of your supermarket – is also more likely to be low in fat, sugar and sodium, while providing more fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
If you really need something from the interior of the store, here’s a general rule about additives: If the ingredient label includes any of the bad boys listed above or is high in caffeine, artificial sweeteners or synthetic colors, put it back on the shelf. Not only are these ingredients among the most questionable additives, but they are used primarily in foods of low nutritional value.
This Just In . . .
Recently, I told you about a reader whose daughter suffers from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. But there’s another autoimmune disease that can impact the thyroid. Unlike Hashimoto’s, Graves’ disease causes the thyroid gland to go into overdrive so that it makes more thyroid hormones than the body needs. High levels of these hormones can cause side effects such as weight loss, rapid heart rate and nervousness. And while Graves’ disease can happen to anyone, it usually strikes women between the ages of 20 and 40.
Symptoms include insomnia, fatigue, infertility, frequent bowel movements, irritability, unexplained weight loss, heat sensitivity, increased sweating, muscle weakness, rapid heart beat and hand tremors. Left untreated, Graves’ disease can lead to heart problems and an increased risk of a miscarriage. It can also be fatal.
Conventional treatment basically attempts to curtail thyroid hormone production with immunosuppressive drugs, radioactive iodine therapy or by removing a large part of the thyroid gland with surgery. If your condition has progressed to these radical treatments, get a second opinion before choosing one.
Even if you do need surgery or radiation, you can augment conventional treatment by eating foods that depress the activity of the thyroid gland. These foods include broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale, spinach, turnips, soy, beans, and mustard greens. Supplemental antioxidants, especially vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and selenium, increases the activity of glutathione peroxidase (a family of enzymes that protect against oxidative damage) and helps to normalize thyroid activity. Just make sure to avoid supplements containing iodine since this nutrient can trigger or exacerbate Graves’ disease.
Finally, stress has been linked to the onset or severity of Graves’ disease. But some patients report benefits from relaxation therapy since it reduces muscle tension, enhances blood circulation and promotes mental calmness. Try practicing yoga or meditation several times a week for lasting benefits.
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Jiang R, Camargo CA Jr, Varraso R, et al. “Consumption of cured meats and prospective risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in women.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2008;87:1002-1008.
Vrca VB, Skreb F, Cepelak I, et al. “Supplementation with antioxidants in the treatment of Graves’ disease; the effect on glutathione peroxidase activity and concentration of selenium.” Alternative Medicine Review. 2004.
Winkler C, Frick B, Schroecksnadel K, et al. “Food preservatives sodium sulfite and sorbic acid suppress mitogen-stimulated peripheral blood mononuclear cells.” Food Chemistry and Toxicology. 2006;44:2003-2007